With seven children, you can imagine the travel tensions my wife, Ellie, and I have experienced during long road trips: bad attitudes, wars over seat space, and the incessant asking of the timeless question, "How much longer until we get there?"
Whether your family is taking a short trip to grandma's house or a cross-country vacation in the family car, having things to do will help the trip pass quicker and make things much more enjoyable for everyone. Ellie and I have borrowed some ideas from other creative parents, and then we developed others out of our own desperation. Following are some of our favorite activities and games to play on a road trip, short or long. We even have some links to some of the tools discussed.
1. Mile marker. On all Interstate freeways and many major U.S. highways, there are small green signs along the shoulder of the road to mark each highway mile. The object of the game is to call out a "mile marker" before anyone else. Each mile marker earns a point. If a family member incorrectly calls a mile marker (i.e., it turns out to be another kind of sign), a point is taken away. If two people call a mile marker at the same time, no point is awarded. The first person to get 10 (or 20 or however many you want, depending on how long you want the game to last) mile markers, wins the game.
2. Alphabet signs. Find all the letters of alphabet in order on billboards, highway signs, license plates, etc. (The only letters off limits are those inside your own vehicle). As a person finds a letter, they call out the letter and the word that contains it. Everyone competes individually, and everyone can call out letters and words at the same time. The first person to finish is the winner.
3. Bible characters. In this variation of the classic game, "20 Questions," one person secretly selects a biblical character and announces the first letter of that person's name. All other family members take turns asking yes/no questions to try to narrow down the subject ("Is it a woman?" or "Did he live in the time of Christ?"). Whenever a family member gets a "Yes" answer to their question, he or she may continue asking until receiving a "No."
To win the game, a person would ask "Is it _____?" If the answer is "Yes", the round is over and the person who guessed correctly gets to choose the next character. If the answer is "No", the person is eliminated from that round, and the other family members play until someone guesses the Bible character. One more twist: if the person who selected the Bible character can't answer one of the questions about the character, the family member who stumped him wins. You can also play this game with animals, sports teams, etc.
4. Camping trip. This is a game of riddles. One person, called the tour guide, thinks of a rule (for example, only words that start with an F are allowed), and announces, "I'm going on a camping trip, and I'm bringing a flashlight." No one else knows the rule, and the goal is to solve the riddle by guessing other words. The next person might say, "Can I bring a battery?" The tour guide would say "You can't come," because he knows that it doesn't start with an F. If the next person says, "Can I bring fun?" the tour guide would respond, "You can come." The round can end in one of two ways. Those who figure out the riddle can keep suggesting items for the camping trip until the light goes on for each remaining person. Or you can end it by someone taking their turn to ask, "Is it 'things that begin with F?'" Of course, if the guess is incorrect, he sits out for the rest of that round.
Other rules that could apply to flashlight might be: words with two syllables, things you'd find in a backpack, words with three consecutive consonants, things that produce light, etc. You can make the game as simple or sophisticated as you want to cater to the abilities of your family members. This game is great for spawning creativity on the part of the tour guide, and building analytical skills for all the other family members.
5. License plate. Each player has a blank map of the United States. When a family member spots a vehicle with the license plate from a particular state, he marks it on his map. One rule: you have to be able to read the name of the state, not just identify the plate by its colors or graphics.
6. The box game. Using a piece of graph paper or a page with 10 rows of 10 evenly-spaced dots, players take turns drawing a vertical or horizontal line from one dot to another. When a person draws a line that completes a box, they put their initial inside the box. When the grid is fully filled in, the initials are counted to determine the winner.
7. Scavenger hunt. Before the trip, develop a list of items that you are likely to see on the trip. When the trip starts, hand the list to each family member (non-readers can help readers find the items). Our family has broken our items into categories (animals, people, vehicles, structures, landscape, etc). The first person to complete each category gets a special treat (i.e., any item under $1 at the next gas station stop). Once a person completes a category, he is not eligible for other category awards (this gives everyone a chance to earn a reward), but is still in the running for the big reward, which is given to the first person who completes the whole list.
8. Reading and listening. Plan a trip to the library before your trip. Allow each child to pick out a few books and make sure they have a personal book bag to keep up with their own stuff (you can also add some coloring books, activity books, pencils, etc.) While you're at the library, pick up some family classics on audio. We actually listened to a dramatized Cheaper By The Dozen during four days of driving.
9. Progressive scrapbook. Buy notebook for each child, along with some tape or gluestick and safe scissors. Wherever you stop, pick up some brochures or postcards. Have the children select pictures or other memorabilia to put in their personal scrapbook, and have them write what they liked about that part of the trip, what they did, etc. Encourage them to write down as many details as they can. They can add family photos to the book once you get the photos processed.
10. How much longer? Using Google or another Internet site, print off a map of your trip and give it to each family member. When someone inevitably asks, "How much longer…? have the questioner pull out his or her personal map and point to where you are on the map. Every once in a while, you might announce, "We're in ______" or, "We just passed Highway ____. Can you find it on your map?" This exercise gives the children something to do, answers their questions, and teaches them how to read maps. And you never again have to say, "If you ask again, you're going to have to not talk for the next half hour!"
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